Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Michigan

Michigan's Kwity Paye rushes against Indiana's Peyton Ramsey in the first half Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Michigan Wolverines

Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (sixth season)

2019 Record: 9-4

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Cesar Ruiz, C, New Orleans Saints – 1st Round, No. 24 overall

Josh Uche, OLB/DE, New England Patriots – 2nd Round, No. 60 overall

Ben Bredeson, OG, Baltimore Ravens – 4th Round, No. 143 overall

Khaleke Hudson, LB/S, Washington – 5th Round, No. 162 overall

Michael Danna, DE, Kansas City Chiefs – 5th Round, No. 177 overall

Michael Onwenu, OG, New England Patriots – 6th Round, No. 182 overall

Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Cleveland Browns – 6th Round, No. 187 overall

Jon Runyan, OG, Green Bay Packers – 6th Round, No. 192 overall

Josh Metellus, S, Minnesota Vikings – 6th Round, No. 205 overall

Jordan Glasgow, LB, Indianapolis Colts, 6th Round, No. 213 overall


Jim Harbaugh has not (yet) delivered a Big Ten championship since taking over as head coach in 2015 but there certainly is no doubting his impact on the NFL draft. Five Wolverines have been selected in the first round since that time, with the 15 combined players picked in the 2019-20 drafts the largest two-year haul from Michigan since the mid ‘70s.

The Wolverines are once again loaded with talent, especially along the line of scrimmage. The powerful and sneaky athletic Paye is currently the highest graded of Michigan’s prospects, with the battle-tested senior already possessing an NFL-ready frame and physicality. Just like last year - when underclassman Cesar Ruiz overtook stalwart seniors Josh Uche and Ben Bredeson (among others) to be the first Wolverine drafted – there is young talent already catching the eye of talent evaluators.

With all of the talent, Michigan fans are left wondering where are the wins? The Wolverines were doubled up by Alabama 35-16 in the Citrus Bowl, Harbaugh’s fourth consecutive bowl loss.

Much to the chagrin of Michigan fans, the Wolverines have seen sporadic play at quarterback predating Harbaugh’s arrival. Shea Patterson delivered two nearly identical seasons (22 TDs/7 INTs in 2018, 23 TDs/8 INTs in 2019) as a much ballyhooed-transfer from Mississippi but is now in the NFL, himself, hoping to latch on as a backup to Patrick Mahomes and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The race to replace Patterson – with incumbent backup Dylan McCaffrey and strong-armed redshirt sophomore Joe Milton the presumed favorites – is among the handful of biggest positional battles in the entire country with obvious Big Ten title implications and perhaps more.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Kwity Paye, DE, 6-3, 277, 4.80, SR

Starting 10 games as a junior, Paye nearly doubled all of his numbers from a 2018 campaign which earned him Honorable Mention honors from Big Ten media, jumping from 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks to 50 stops in 2019 with 12.5 behind the line of scrimmage, including 6.5 sacks – two against highly regarded Iowa left tackle Alaric Jackson.

While Paye's performance against the projected first rounder certainly boosted the defender's national reputation, he secured his place in the hearts of Michigan fans a little earlier, cementing a win against a feisty Army squad. 

After helping Bishop Hendricken reach the Rhode Island state championship game in 2016, Paye signed with Michigan as a relatively ho-hum three-star prospect (at least by Michigan standards).

Paye earned playing time immediately, seeing action in nine games as a true freshman (5 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack) before tasting his first bit of starting (and starring) action as a sophomore in 2018, appearing in all 13 games and starting four alongside future early NFL draft picks Rashan Gary a 2019 first round by the Green Bay Packers, as well as Chase Winovich and Josh Uche, both of whom are now members of the New England Patriots.

Strengths: Power-packed frame with excellent weight distribution including long arms and tree trunks for thighs, which leave Paye with an ideal body armor for what he does best on the field. Paye possesses just average initial burst for an edge rusher, but he coordinates his hands and feet well to leave would-be blockers stumbling, winning with a combination of length, power and technique to affect the running and passing game, alike. 

He incorporates clever dekes to the outside or in, stringing together moves like an NFL veteran. Paye’s long arms give him a reach advantage and he possesses incredible upper body strength, quite literally bench-pressing would-be blockers with a stellar push-pull move to rip through their grasps like a tornado. Sets a strong edge and forces running backs to run around him with enough strength, length and awareness of those around him to pull them down with arm tackles. Strong and broad enough to reduce inside to defensive tackle, offering some positional versatility. Better athlete than his snap anticipation/initial quickness would indicate, showing impressive core flexibility to dip under the reach of blockers, as well as get skinny to slip through gaps. Agile on the move and shows good vision and spatial awareness to pursue laterally and downfield effectively. High effort player with a history of big plays in big moments. Top-notch athlete who defensive coordinator Don Brown praised for his versatility, raving about Paye’s ability to play “up and down the defensive line…” Track and field state champion (Rhode Island) in the 4x100 meter relay and long jump (21’5”).

Weaknesses: Just average production to this point given his talent. Lacks the consistent suddenness off the snap teams expect out of an edge rusher. Consistently late off the ball giving opponents a significant advantage and forcing Paye to play in react-mode too often. May just be a timing of the snap issue, as Paye fires off the ball, occasionally… Too many of his big plays are "coverage sacks..."

Reliant on his upper body strength for drag down tackles rather than exploding through his hips, leaving some knockdown power on the table. Emotions sometimes get the better of him, brawling with blockers until the echo of the whistle and risking late hits/targeting on occasion… 

Has the arm length scouts adore but currently lacks the awareness of the ball coaches require, tipping just one pass and forcing just one fumble in 24 games to this point.

NFL Player Comparison: Shaq Lawson, Miami Dolphins – Like the 6-3, 267 pound Lawson, Paye lacks the elite burst to ever rank among the NFL’s most feared pass-rushers but he is disruptive, nonetheless, due to his raw power.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Second Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Michigan:

1. Kwity Paye, DE, 6-3, 277, 4.80, SR

2. Jaylen Mayfield, OT, 6-5, 319, 5.0, rSoph

3. Aidan Hutchinson, DE, 6-5, 278, 4.80, JR

4. Nico Collins, WR, 6-3, 222, 4.50, SR

5. Ambry Thomas, CB, 5-11, 182, 4.45, SR

6. Ronnie Bell, WR, 6-0, 184, 4.40, JR

7. Brad Hawkins, S, 6-1, 215, 4.55, SR

8. Carlo Kemp, DL, 6-3, 285, 4.90, SR

9. Nick Eubanks, TE, 6-4, 255, 4.65, rSR

10. Cameron McGrone, ILB, 6-0, 232, 4.60, rSoph

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates